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It's the weekend, which means it's again time to switch from your bad screen to your good screen. It also means a whole new slew of patents from the U.S.' biggest tech companies is here, and there were some truly zany things going on this week. Apple wants to make an Apple Watch for your finger; Google wants to cover your house in ads; Amazon wants us to argue about "Harry Potter"; Microsoft wants to keep you alive in VR; and Facebook put the characters from "Alice in Wonderland" in Messenger for some reason.
And remember: The big tech companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things, and though most never amount to anything, some end up defining the future.
Google has been working on Duplex, its AI assistant that can call businesses and make reservations on behalf of a user, for a little while now — with mixed results. The company's patent from this week explains the system in more detail, and how the assistant could theoretically call every Chinese restaurant in your town to find out which has availability that evening. If it worked as envisioned, it would be a technical marvel that would almost certainly mean you would never have to talk to a maitre d' again, and also probably annoy every business in town.
When our devices can talk to each other, they can perform useful tasks like turning on the lights, lowering the heat, or even switching channels on the TV. Now it's apparently (and inevitably) time for our interconnected devices to become digital billboards. In this patent, Google outlines a system where a user could be watching a show on one device — like a smart TV or phone — and when an ad displays, it could show related content, such as a shopping link or an instructional video, on other screens on your network. It'd be like Times Square in your living room, when all you wanted to do was catch up on "Ozark."
Although Verily got out of Verb Surgical, its joint-venture with Johnson & Johnson exploring robotic surgeries, it's still pursuing patents around surgical bots. It was recently awarded one that describes how a robot could be used to dissect tissues, either for procedures like biopsies or to help out in surgeries. The system could use computer vision and rough instructions from a person on the areas they would like the robot to cut, presumably with greater accuracy than a human surgeon could. The robot could also image the tissue it's cutting, which could help doctors diagnose their patients. I hope in the future Verily's former sister company provides the robots, so after they perform a successful surgery, they can do a few backflips.
In its quest to automate the entire retail process, one of Amazon's biggest sticking points is that not every object it sells comes in a nice square box. Humans are very good at being able to quickly understand how to pick something up, thanks to millennia of evolution. Robots, on the other hand, aren't very good at adapting. Teach them to pick up a box and they'll be able to do it forever, but if you then tell them to pick up a football, they'll struggle. Amazon has been trying for years to replace the humans who pack its boxes with robots. And a patent published this week suggests a breakthrough might be around the corner. It outlines a robotic arm with a suction system attached to the end that can form around uneven surfaces, kind of like picking something up with your mouth. Not that I've ever tried to do that.
If you're after something a little deeper than the star-rating system Amazon currently uses, perhaps this patent is for you. It describes being able to chat with other Amazon users about products on the site in a sort-of group discussion. One example given in the patent's documentation is for the "Harry Potter" series: One person says "The Goblet of Fire" is the best book, and then someone chimes in to say they actually think "The Sorcerer's Stone" is better, and others agree, leading someone to purchase that book. This seems like a neat idea for comparison shopping, though anyone who would want to start a seven-book series on any book other than the first one has issues even a chat function can't fix.
Sometimes, a person's front door isn't especially obvious. I mean, if I saw this and was supposed to deliver a package to that address, I'd probably just give up. Amazon's new patent would help delivery workers figure out where to drop a package off: The first time someone delivers a package to an address, they snap a photo of the place, and future delivery workers could consult the image to see if they're actually in the right spot. It would presumably also help Amazon and its delivery people prove they delivered a package where they said they would, when they said they did.
Apple received a patent a few weeks ago for a ring-shaped wearable to control a VR system, but this week's patent takes things much further. Apparently someone on Apple's storied design team thought it would be worth trying to jam the functionality of an Apple Watch onto an even smaller device, worn on a finger instead of the wrist. I already have a tough time reading things on the relatively small display of my Apple Watch — let alone accurately tapping on the screen — so I can't imagine reading anything on a screen like this:
This patent has one of my favorite opening lines to date: "It is desirable to provide vehicles and buildings with windows." If you agree with this highly controversial statement, then read on. Apple's patent outlines an electronic system that would allow you to dynamically change how tinted your windows are. This could be useful for that extremely annoying part of the day right before dusk when the sun seems to be directly in your eyes wherever you're driving, and then it's dark before you know it. Changing up the tinting could be super helpful, especially if you're like me and can never remember where you put your sunglasses.
A few years back, Facebook introduced the ability to react to posts with something other than the 👍 emoji, adding in a ❤️ and the cast of "Inside Out," but it seems that wasn't enough for Facebook. This new patent suggests a system for responding to any article posted on Facebook with a sliding scale of emotions. Instead of just seeing a happy, sad, amazed and angry emoji, you'd now see what appears to be the entire gamut of human emotion, from elated to depressed, and sort of blasé in the middle. I'm not sure why you'd want to react to something by telling the person who posted it that you're nonplussed, but to each his own. I'm blasé about it.
I'm sharing this one mainly because it has some of the wildest art I've ever seen in a patent. Most of the time, patents use generic clip-art of computers or phones or whatever they're trying to illustrate, or very crude line drawings of people. But this patent decided to dip into the public domain and drop in some drawings from Lewis Carroll's classic "Alice in Wonderland." The patent outlines a system for reducing the power consumption of an always-on social network app (like Facebook's Messenger app can be on Android devices). But overlaid on that scenario are the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, the Cheshire Cat and Alice, all of whom are apparently Facebook users.
This is an interesting idea for combining peripherals with a tablet — which just happens to look a lot like Microsoft's forthcoming Surface Duo. The patent describes a stylus that can be bent into a semicircle and then used as a charging dock for a wireless earpiece. When you want to use the stylus, you snap it straight, and you can draw on your tablet. I'm not sure what the market for single earpiece and stylus combos looks like, but it's a neat way to save space on the peripherals you'd want to carry along with your new Surface tablet.
If you're deep into some VR experience, you might forget that you're not actually on the side of a mountain or on an alien starship. Microsoft's patent explains a system that could use cameras or sensors on your headset to scan the room you're in, and overlay real objects onto whatever you're looking at to remind you to be careful. It would apparently also work for moving objects — like your dog running through the room — so there shouldn't be any surprises as you navigate through your virtual world. Just make sure to not get confused and try to shoot your dog when it comes into your view.
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A simple way for potential hackers to figure out if email addresses are real is to put them into the sign-on page for the email provider; if the site says the password is incorrect, the hacker will know that the email address is legit. Microsoft suggests a new solution: sign-on pages that don't make it obvious whether an account is real. The system might tell a person trying to log in for the first few attempts whether the email or password is incorrect (or just keep it vague and say one or both items are incorrect), but then lock down the site if the would-be hacker keeps trying to guess email addresses. And if you're not a hacker and you can't remember your own email address, do you really even need that email?
Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.